Tag Archives: democrats

Winning the Argument on Tax Cuts and Government Spending

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at care2.com on December 5, 2010.

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It’s a funny thing.  Only about two percent of Americans make up the wealthiest two percent of Americans.  How is it then that so many Americans are willing to stand with Republicans in their efforts to lower taxes on the top two percent?

What is it about slogans like “no more taxes,” and “government spending is out of control” that are so appealing to the other ninety-eight percent of Americans?  The 98% don’t really pay all that much in taxes, and they recoup a substantial amount of what they do pay through their use of social programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Veteran’s benefits, welfare, public education, transportation, environmental protection and unemployment insurance, etc.

Liberal commentators often skip over this question and jump into the fray accusing Republicans of greed, manipulation and deception.  Rachel Maddow recently expressed concern that Democrats would compromise on the Bush tax cuts.  She railed against the Republicans’ consistent refusal to compromise and extolled Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for blasting Republicans for cutting taxes on the wealthy at the same time as they complain about debt and deficits.

SANDERS: “We are now faced with the issue of what we do with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and if you can believe it, we have people here, many of my Republican colleagues who tell us, oh, I am so concerned with debt and deficits, I am terribly concerned with a trillion dollar national debt, terribly concerned, but wait a minute, its very important that we give, over a ten year period, 700 billion in tax breaks to the top 2 percent.”

“We talk about a lot of things on the floor of the Senate, but somehow we forget to talk about the reality of who is winning in this economy and who is losing, and it is very clear to anyone who spends two minutes studying the issue, the people on top are doing extraordinarily well at the same time as the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing.”

This is true, so why don’t Americans vote 98-2 in support of taxes and government spending?  Why don’t Democrats have more traction when they argue for raising taxes on the wealthy and spending money on social programs?

Could it be that Americans don’t feel good about taxes and government spending because they really are naturally wary of big government?  Remember that the nation was born of the fundamental principles that power corrupts and authority must be held in check.  Yet the size and scope of government today dwarfs any monarchy or authority that the founding fathers could even have imagined.  The British Empire of old doesn’t hold a candle to present day Washington.

This isn’t to say that Social Security and Medicare shouldn’t be revered and safeguarded.  But costly foreign wars and catastrophic financial mismanagement have caused more than the usual doubt or despair over government.

Anyone who argues in the public arena that taxes must be collected and spending authorized would do well to respect the public’s healthy skepticism. To speak to this concern is to talk about good management practices and improved efficiency; more persons served and better services with lower costs.  This doesn’t have to hide the difficult decisions about balancing budgets and taking care of our fellow citizens.  But it’s not enough to say the rich can afford to pay, or that Republicans want to cut spending on social programs, and think that you’ve won the argument.

Americans know that the breakdown in good government is in part because government’s very size and financial power have turned it into an unwieldy, unaccountable beast.  How the public regains control is not yet known, but those working to preserve the social safety net, should avoid collisions with the public’s genuine desire for government reform.

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Check out my U.S. Supreme Court case law podcasts at supremepodcast.com.

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President Obama’s Tea Party Credentials

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at care2.com on November 14, 2010

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I wonder if the story of the midterm elections is what it seems:  Tea Party Rejection of President Obama’s policies ushers in a Republican agenda.

In that story, President Obama is either the same old Washington problem, out to use tax-payer money and gov’t power for his own out-of-touch interests or an out-of-control Democrat-Socialist on a wild spending spree.  The deficit and debt represent the proof of the irresponsibility of the incumbents, and the new Republicans are the populist heroes who will reign in spending and balance the budget.

But I keep remembering candidate Obama saying “I am not doing this so I can pass the buck on the hard decisions.”  Difficult decisions are the ones where you take things from powerful people or make them pay what they cost, rather than offer give-aways.

Leave the financial crisis aside for a moment.

The current President inherited both short-term deficit spending (war, tax cuts, excess gov’t spending, etc. — unpaid for) and long term structural debt (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security going up unsustainably per existing law and future demographics).  There are sometimes reasons to borrow money, to spend now and pay off debts later, but the past decade was not WWII.  Congress simply spent more than it took in, and it gave gifts such as tax cuts and Medicare benefits by borrowing money.

Along comes Barack Obama, talking about “bending the cost curve.”  Significant in the health care reform was removing tax subsidies for generous employer-sponsored health plans. Most Americans get their insurance from employer-sponsored health plans, and this substantial reform, however unpopular, will reduce the costs and waste of excessive medical care.  Mr. Obama also approved taking funds out of Medicare.  That’s hurting doctors and potentially forcing more cost containment on publicly funded health care for seniors.

The President also talked about reducing earmarks (the first budget under Obama contained earmarks prepared before his inauguration).  That hurts corporate interests and the politicians so aligned.   Then, Mr. Obama sought to reduce defense spending, with his Secretary of Defense standing up to criticism by congressional and corporate defense interests.

This sure seems like the long-term path of fiscal discipline.

What I’m wondering is, could the Tea Party movement be going in the same direction as the President?  Could it be that in order to balance the budget a lot of sacrifices will have to be made?  The President started down that path. (The financial crisis brought some unexpected costs — Bush’s TARP and Obama’s Stimulus — but not a recurring give-away). Now, the Tea Party-rejuvenated Republicans are all about cutting spending.

Doesn’t that really put them in the President’s camp?  Everyone with an interest, special or otherwise, will argue for their piece of the pie.  Tea Party Republicans are proposing to reform earmarks, cut defense spending and balance the budget.  They come at the problem as if it was the government that was devouring all the money.  But if they stay in the game for long enough, they will see that it’s not that simple.

In that case, President Obama may again appear the reformer:  A leader with a clear understanding of what needs to change to create a more sustainable America, waiting for people with integrity and discipline, a willingness to sacrifice, and political courage to join the fight against a system of entrenched interests.

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Listen to Marc Seltzer’s weekly podcasts on the U.S. Supreme Court at SupremePodcast.com

No Tea Party in Canada

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at care2.com on October 13, 2010
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Democrats seem bewildered by the strength of the Tea Party movement.  Powerful incumbent Senators such as Boxer (CA) and Reid (NV), and numerous House Reps in leadership positions find themselves in difficult contests. Republicans are poised to gain significant numbers in the legislative branch in November’s mid-terms election.

Fighting back, Democrats and their supporters have gone after Tea Party-Republican candidates, focusing on their oddities, inconsistencies, and lack of coherent policies.  Rachel Maddow, among others, has exposed the remarkably poor caliber of some candidates propelled by the Tea Party to victory in the Republican primaries.

Be that as it may, the legitimate complaint of the Tea Party movement has not been effectively dealt with by Democrats.  The root groundswell of anti-government energy comes from fear and anger about deficit spending and debt.

Deficits matter.

In Canada, governments of the past decade worked hard to erase the substantial deficits of the 1990s.  When the 2008 financial crisis arrived, Canada was able to face the recession with sound economic fundamentals.   Increased public spending in 2009 and 2010 again created deficits, but helped Canada recover nearly all the jobs lost in 2008.  Embarking on a new deficit spending program did not faze the public, and Canadian leaders are now talking about returning to surplus budgets in the next 7 years.

There is no tea party movement in Canada.  National health care, yes.  Major tax protests, no.

For all the things wrong with aspects of the Tea Party movement, from blaming the Obama administration for current ills to dredging up misguided social views, the truth is that the U.S. would have braved the recession far more effectively if it had had a budget surplus.

In not addressing this aspect of the financial health of the nation directly from the start, with a coherent long-term plan, the Democrats have allowed the opposition to bundle legitimate disapproval of the government’s budget outlook with generalized anger at banks, unemployment, the Bush administration, Congress, taxes, and government spending.

It’s working for Republicans so far, and if this election looks bleak, imagine Sarah Palin filling a stadium near you in 2012.

(Marc Seltzer has been on paternity leave after the birth of his daughter in June.  Marc can also be heard reviewing U.S. Supreme Court cases at SupremePodcast.com)

Are Republicans Lying About Financial Reform?

By Marc Seltzer; originally posted on April 20, 2010, at care2.com

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As the Senate moves towards consideration of financial industry reform, politics again threatens to overwhelm substance in the debate.  Conservatives have attacked Democratic legislation with the moniker “bailouts forever.”  Political writer Mark Halperin charged Republicans with “intentionally misreading the law,” echoing claims of angry Senate Dems.  Unlike with health care reform, where budget complexity defied evaluation without experts and CBO forecasts, the core principles of financial reform are fairly straight forward.

The following is what you need to know to make your own decision:

A.  Protections against risky behavior by financial institutions


1. Capital Requirements

Companies will be forced to keep more money available — “capitalization” or “capital reserves” — to protect themselves against losses so that typical companies will not be at risk of collapse in a downturn.  Sufficient capital could have eliminated the need for bailouts of financial institutions in 2008-2009.

2.  Leverage Restrictions
Financial companies will be limited in how much money they borrow and put at risk. Many institutions make money by investing and taking risk with borrowed funds.  This extends their gains in boom times, but threatens overwhelming losses in a bust.  Private companies are still allowed to place their bets, even risky bets, but they cannot do so using such high percentages of borrowed funds, creating a risk of nonpayment when their investments go bad.

Capital and Leverage rules are the key to protecting the economy from a 2008-style crisis. No longer would the great extent of irresponsible risk be tolerated.  With each individual company taking less risk, a severe downturn in the economy could drive some financial entities out of business, but would not threaten the entire financial industry and thus require government assistance.

Watch out for “too big to fail” arguments from the Left (“break up the banks”) or Right (“endless bailouts”). Canada has five of the largest banks in the world and none faltered.  Canada’s financial institutions are regulated with the same type of serious oversight included in current US proposals.  Capital requirements for Canadian banks were held at 7 percent going into this crisis, while the global average was closer to 4 percent. Canada’s chief financial regulator, OSFI Superintendent Julie Dickson, remarked in November 2008, “We have seen how strong capital cushions in Canada have paid off to the benefit of our institutions and overall financial system.” (My comparison of the U.S. administration’s proposals with the Canadian regulatory system)

The point is, capital, leverage and risk management are more important than size.  In fact, no one financial institution in the US was too big to fail as far as the effect on jobs, small business loans or the stock market.  The problem was that many separate but co-dependent entities were unable to handle a downturn and would have failed within a period of months, if not for government intervention.  Early in the Great Depression 5000 banks failed.  Making each bank smaller is irrelevant, if they all fail.

B.  Specifically dealing with failing companies.

1.  Closing companies down — “FDIC Resolution Authority”
The administration’s proposal is to use the FDIC (Federal Depository Insurance Corporation), which currently closes banks that are failing, to close all financial institutions, when they fall below financial operating requirements.  The FDIC is highly regarded for efficient and effective “weekend” bank closures.  FDIC agents take over Friday at 5:00 p.m., and Monday the bank is open for customers, but under FDIC supervision.  The FDIC locates a new buyer quickly and gets out of the way once new management takes over.  Previously, there was no law permitting FDIC action on failing financial institutions that were not technically chartered banks.  Thus, Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Citi, etc., could not have been closed by the FDIC.

The alternative approach, proposed by critics of the FDIC model, is to allow failing financial institutions that are not banks to file for bankruptcy.  Advocates say that bankruptcy courts have more expertise than the FDIC at large complicated business structures.  However, bankruptcy does allow the management to continue through the failure and to propose corrective plans, using the bankruptcy court to deal with creditors.

In the 2008-2009 crisis, insurer AIG would have had to file bankruptcy, if the federal government did not bail it out.  In bankruptcy, AIG and its management would still have aimed to protect their own interests, despite the anticipated international catastrophe of its own making. (Many financial institutions had used AIG to insure themselves against losses; AIG’s collapse would have led to additional major collapses worldwide)

According to the proposed “FDIC resolution authority” model, the financial institution will be taken over and immediately managed by experts with the public’s interest in mind.  Presumably, the bankruptcy model would also protect the larger financial system, since higher capital and leverage standards, discussed above, would serve to lower the amount of damage that any one institution could cause in failure. However, the FDIC, as a banking regulator, has expertise in the financial system, while bankruptcy courts handle competing public and private interests in all types of businesses, and may not always have a view to protecting financial stability.  Remember, the purpose of the new law is to stop poor decision-making of a few entities from impacting the entire industry and the wider economy.

2.  Industry-Financed Disaster Fund
The Senate legislation plans for the financial institutions to contribute to a fund to be used if needed in closing companies.  The 50 billion dollar fund would shield taxpayers from having to pay for any costs incurred by failing financial institutions.  While the new law intends to avoid bailouts altogether, by making financial institutions less risky, more self-sufficient, and by closing them before they create systemic damage, it provides that any bailouts that do occur will be paid from a fund created with private financial company fees.

Should industry-financed bailouts be allowed? Imagine, for example, that a financial institution failure would cause a functioning private hospital to be shut down for a week while it sought new financing from another bank.  In that case, not because of a threat to the wider economy, but because of other public purposes, short-term bailout financing, using the institution-financed fund, might be deemed appropriate, at no cost to the tax payer.

The reason that Congress is rejecting the idea of outlawing any possibility of bailouts, is that it is possible that public purposes will be served by having a bailout option.  What is different here is that the government will not be forced into bailout because the new capital and leverage requirements will protect the wider economy.  Thus, Republican claims that bailouts using public funds will continue, do not take into account the fact that new capital and leverage requirements are the primary defense against systemic risk.  It is not by pledging, even through legislation, to avoid bailouts that we will be protected.  It is by stopping companies from taking so much risk that the entire system is put in danger of collapse.

C.  Consumer Protection

Fundamental consumer protections already exist to keep financial institutions from stealing or mismanaging their customers assets.  However, as the Madoff scandal illustrates, the government is not always effective in policing.  In addition, in the real estate market, many homebuyers obtained mortgages without fully comprehending the terms and consequences.  The new law aims to provide additional protection for consumers.  Krugman: Looters in Loafers

The financial industry is strongly against the consumer protection provisions, partly because they do not know how aggressive the new body will be in regulating business practices.  (Auto-finance example)  The current proposal puts a new consumer-protection agency under the authority of the Federal Reserve.  As the Federal Reserve traditionally regulates banks and manages monetary policy, including the interest rates that banks are charged to borrow funds for their business operations, the issue for the new consumer protection regulator will be how independent it remains from Fed regulators with different goals, and determining what level of protection balances business objectives with consumer rights.

These are the core ideas behind the administration’s plan, as spearheaded by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and now incorporated into Democratic legislation.  As Congressional leaders posture about whether to support or oppose the plan and why, decide for yourself what’s politics and what’s substance.

More by Marc Seltzer:  Hate that Obama’s Near the Middle, Think Again!
Questioning Conventional Wisdom

Will Republicans return to power in November?  Listen to Marc Seltzer and Jessica Pieklo discuss political prospects at Redefining America:  Constitution and Leadership 2010

April 22, 2010 UPDATE: NY Times updates Dems efforts to push forward in the Senate and Republican opposition.

Hate That Obama’s Near the Middle? Think Again

(Photo:  Obama speaking in Europe, where his views are well received and highly regarded)

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on April 13, 2010, at care2.com

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Contrary to all the talk of disenchantment with the state of the nation, there is reason to be optimistic that President Obama is leading the government in exactly the right direction.  While his critics voice disappointment and outrage, calling on Mr. Obama to govern to the left and to the right, President Obama governs by judgment, not ideology.  This will always disappoint ideologues who see the world through conservative or liberal glasses, but do critics have credible political ideas behind them?

At the outset, a few things need to be set straight.  First, the biggest thing President Obama has done since taking office is not health care reform.  (Complete Story)

Our discussion of current issues continues here:

Redefining America:  Constitution and Leadership 2010

Podcast, April 12, 2010 (Click to hear)

With the November congressional elections in mind, we discuss the Democrats’ efforts to regain momentum after the passage of health care reform legislation and Republicans’ attempt to champion a rally against the incumbent majority government.

Republican Calls for Repeal Invite Deficit Scrutiny and Skepticism

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on March 29, 2010 at care2.com

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Reform is Bitter Medicine

One aspect of President Obama’s health care reform legislation that has not received enough serious discussion is deficit reduction.  Despite claims that the legislation expands government, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that it will reduce the deficit by a significant amount over the next twenty years.

This has not stopped Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham, from announcing a campaign to “repeal and replace” the legislation.  What the Republicans have not said, is whether they would increase the deficit by such repeal, or find a way to match or improve upon the projected $130+ billion dollars in deficit reduction over first ten years and more than a trillion dollars in projected saving by 2030 contained in the Obama plan.  (Atul Gawande in the New Yorker gives some context)

It’s not hard to create popular legislation if it gives benefits that it does not pay for.  Remember that President Bush’s Medicare Prescription Drug benefit was popular, but was also a giveaway, increasing the deficit.  The harder part is to create legislation that lowers the deficit, without losing support among constituents, who like the idea of deficit reduction, but don’t want to see their own benefits taken away.

No matter what happens in November, President Obama would surely veto any attempts to repeal health care reform.  He may be open to improving upon current legislation, but he has promoted the “PayGo” (from pay-as-you-go) rule, which requires that new legislation not raise the deficit.  “PayGo” requires cuts in spending or increases in taxes to offset any new program spending.  “PayGo” led to surpluses in the Clinton presidency, and will again, so long as it is followed.  However, Republicans have no credibility on fiscal discipline.  They may run for office on a repeal platform, but will they propose alternatives to health care reform that cut the deficit?

Remember, repealing the current law would, in itself, raise the deficit, since Obama’s new legislation substantially lowers the deficit.

Republicans’ most appealing political argument, superficially, at least, against Obama’s health care reform, is that it takes money from Medicare.  Republicans claim it will bankrupt Medicare and hurt senior care.  Democrats refute these claims, arguing that the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse and the establishment of an independent panel to review Medicare spending will lower costs without cutting the quality of senior’s care.

An ongoing disagreement over doctor reimbursement rates may be another difficult challenge or an opportunity for creative problem solving, when it resurfaces in coming months or years.

It is no surprise that Republicans have come down on the side of spending more, and reassuring constituents, rather than bold action and fiscal responsibility.  But if Republicans are going to have any relevant part in the health-care debate going forward, they must be willing to offer potentially unpopular proposals that the CBO agrees will cut the deficit.  So far, Republicans have shown no appetite for the politically difficult task of cutting spending, not in Medicare, not in Social Security, and not in Defense.

President Obama has taken criticism for his stimulus spending.  But this was one-time emergency spending to stave off economic crisis, and the benefit of a rebounding economy should include increased tax revenues and a lowering of the deficit over time.  The President has since made it clear that he came to Washington to make the tough decisions, including long-term deficit reduction.  His health care reform triumph follows through on that promise.

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For more on health care reform:  You’ve Got to Hand it To Them:  Obama, Pelosi and Reid.